Bloody Monday to Walter Camp: The Standardization of American Football

WalterCamp

Imagine your school is traveling to Athens to play the University of Georgia in football. Here’s the catch: you have to play by Georgia’s rules. In the early days of college football each school developed its own rules–in intercollegiate contests the home team’s rules prevailed. The early days of college football were a time of trial and error. Different schools played different versions of the game. Some versions looked more like soccer, others like rugby, and others were a combination of many influences.

During the 1820s, several colleges in the northeast played their own version of college football. Each had its own set of rules and played only intramural games. For example, Princeton played a game called “ballown” as early as 1820. Harvard began its own version in 1827 with a game between the freshmen and sophomore classes affectionately known as “Bloody Monday,” while Dartmouth played something called “Old Division Football.” These disparate games had some basic features in common: large numbers of players trying to advance a ball into a goal by any means necessary, violence, and frequent injury. Because of the injury issue, these schools abolished their brand of football by the beginning of the Civil War, although the game continued in some form at various east coast prep schools.

By the late 1860s, football had returned to colleges in the northeast. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game. The schools played with a round ball under Rutgers’ rules.  One score equaled one point. The game appeared more similar to rugby and soccer than to the American football of the twentieth century. Each side played with 25 players with the objective of kicking a ball into the opposing team’s goal. Players were not allowed to throw or carry the ball, and physical contact was part of the game. Rutgers defeated the visitors from Princeton 6-4. A week later the two schools played at Princeton under Princeton’s rules. The rules of the two schools were similar with the notable exception that a player who caught a ball on the fly was awarded a free kick. Princeton scored a measure of revenge with an 8-0 victory.

As more colleges began playing football, school officials quickly saw the need for standardized rules. On October 20, 1873, representatives from Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Rutgers met in New York to develop a set of regulations based more on soccer than rugby. Harvard boycotted the meeting because it insisted on playing by its own regulations known as the “Boston game” – a version predicated more on carrying the ball than on kicking it. Harvard found itself without competition until Tufts College, located outside of Boston, agreed to play Harvard June, 4, 1875.  Tufts won a passionate game 1-0.  As more colleges began playing football, school officials quickly saw the need for standardized rules.

In 1876, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia met in New York to try once more to standardize the rules. This time the schools agreed on a new code of regulations based largely on the Rugby Football Union’s code from England. Under the new rules a two-point touchdown replaced the kicked goal as the primary means of scoring.

It wasn’t until 1880 that college football began to resemble the game as it is played today. Walter Camp was a college football player (Yale), coach (Yale and Stanford), and sportswriter. As Yale coach, his 1888, 1891, and 1892 teams won recognition as national champions. Camp also took part in the various intercollegiate rules committees beginning as a player in 1880 until his death in 1925. Because of his role on the rules committees, Camp became known as the “Father of American football.” Camp spearheaded the change to today’s game. At yet another New York meeting, Camp convinced representatives of Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia to approve a reduction from 15 to 11 players per side, the establishment of a line of scrimmage, and the snap of the ball between the center and the quarterback. Football became more of an open game emphasizing speed.

At later meetings, Camp helped persuade the schools that a team had to gain five yards within three downs or lose possession; that the field should be reduced in size to its modern dimensions of 120 yards by 53.3 yards; and that four points should be awarded for a touchdown, two points for kicks made after touchdowns, two points for safeties, and five for field goals. (The scoring structure has since been changed to six points for touchdowns, one for the kick after a touchdown, and three for a successful field goal.) Camp was also responsible for having two paid officials referee every game and legalizing tackling below the waist.

College football owes much to pioneers of the game like Walter Camp. Without standardization of the rules, the mixed bag of a game that evolved into what we now call football would likely not have survived.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Role in the Creation of the NCAA

 

College football has seen its share of scandals, cheating, and lack of institutional control in the last twenty years. Within the last few  years, we’ve witnessed unprecedented sanctions against Penn State, major problems involving Miami, and multiple rules violations at Oklahoma State as reported in Sports Illustrated. It seems as if almost every school has received the dreaded notice from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules enforcement group that an investigation into improprieties is imminent. However, the sport has not only survived but flourished with mega-million dollar television contracts, unprecedented game attendance, and a culture, at least in the South, that has developed around football Saturdays. Such is the present state of college football. However, college football came excruciatingly close to being abolished at many universities in the early 1900s. If not for the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, the game would most certainly not have evolved into what it is today.

College football started at many schools in the 1890s. The powers of the time were eastern schools such as Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Union, Swarthmore, and Princeton. Football, even then, was big business. Games produced thousands of dollars for the schools and the alumni and students demanded winning teams. The pressure to win caused some schools to employ such unethical tactics as admitting football players who did not qualify academically, encouraging professors to pass players in their classes in order to keep the players eligible, and inventing classes just for football players. Alumni paid players under the table to come to their alma maters or to remain on their football teams. It was not unusual for athletes to play at a different school every year or change schools in mid-season.

Perhaps the most egregious practice involved the excessive brutality associated with the games. Elite players were targeted by the opposition and intentionally injured. For example, in a game between Princeton and Dartmouth, Princeton’s players intentionally broke the collarbone of Dartmouth’s best player early in the game. Other premeditated acts such as breaking an opponent’s nose were commonplace. In some cases, players died from overly aggressive play. A Union College player died after a play during a game with New York University. Amidst this backdrop of unethical actions and overt brutality, Columbia and Union abolished football and more schools threatened to do the same. Harvard’s president also called for the abolition of the sport. As a football fan and Harvard graduate, Roosevelt decided it was time to intervene. He believed football built character and that physical play was a necessary part of the game. However, Roosevelt did not condone the sport’s brutality and poor sportsmanship.  The President invited representatives from three of the eastern football powers – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – to meet with him at the White House on October 9, 1905. Roosevelt hoped this group could develop a plan to reform college football.

The group discussed the current state of the game, including examples of unethical behavior and unsportsmanlike play committed by each school. In a recent game between Harvard and Yale, a Harvard player called for a fair catch of a Yale punt. Two Yale defenders intentionally ran into the Harvard player after the fair catch was called. One Yale defender broke the Harvard player’s nose while the other delivered a body blow with his feet knocking the Harvard player unconscious. Roosevelt also referenced the aforementioned Dartmouth-Princeton incident. The school representatives denied any knowledge of their respective school’s indiscretions. However, upon the urging of the President, a representative from each school agreed to draft an agreement that the three institutions would play by the letter and the spirit of the established rules of football.

This agreement among Harvard, Yale, and Princeton did not bring immediate change to the game. Roosevelt had no enforcement powers over the schools, so the White House meeting proved unsuccessful. However, Roosevelt had given legitimacy to the problems of college football by publicly acknowledging serious problems existed.  The momentum for reform led to a meeting of about 60 schools in New York on December 28, 1905. The group created a new rules committee, composed of men from all over the country, to oversee the game. Additionally, the group demanded enforcement of these rules by a capable body of well-trained officials. The Inter Collegiate Athletic Association became the new organization to enforce the rules. In 1910, the organization changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or the NCAA.

Roosevelt may not have saved college football but he surely fanned the flames for reform that eventually led to the establishment of the NCAA. It is debatable how effective the NCAA has been over the ensuing years, but that is a topic for another time.

The Origins of the Southeastern Conference

1921VandyFootballteam

Utter the words “Southeastern Conference” during football season and your listeners will envision national championships, top ten rankings, and lucrative television contracts. Today the term is synonymous with the madness that is college football in the South. But in truth, the phrase was not always so meaningful.  The Southeastern Conference (SEC) was not always known by this name.

As college football took hold at schools across the country, southern school officials began to realize that an affiliation with similar institutions would make sense from an economic and geographic perspective. Southern football’s first game took place in 1881 as Kentucky State (now known as the University of Kentucky) beat Kentucky University (now known as Transylvania University) 7.5 to 1.  By 1892, the birth of southern football began in earnest.  Teams from Alabama, A & M College of Alabama (Auburn), Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt were playing.  LSU began its proud football history in 1893, Arkansas and Texas A & M in 1894, Mississippi A & M (Mississippi State) in 1895, and Florida in 1906.

Dr. William Dudley, a chemistry professor at Vanderbilt, answered the call for an affiliation of southern schools.  Representatives from seven schools—Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Sewanee, and Vanderbilt—met Dudley on December 22, 1894 at the Kimball House in Atlanta to form the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), the grandfather of the SEC.  The SIAA was formed, according to Dr. Dudley, to provide faculty regulation and control of all college athletics.  A year later, 12 more schools were added, including Clemson, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Texas, and Tulane.

The SIAA held together through the 1920 season.  At the annual conference on December 10, 1920, a disagreement among the schools took place.  The smaller SIAA schools, through their collective vote, passed a rule allowing freshmen players to compete immediately with the varsity and voted down a proposition to abolish a rule that allowed athletes to play summer baseball for money.  Additionally, the SIAA had reached 30 members making it very difficult for the schools to play one another and crown a true champion.  Led by University of Georgia English professor Dr. S.V. Sanford, 18 schools left to form the Southern Intercollegiate Conference (Southern Conference) on February 25, 1921 in Atlanta.  At that point, the SIAA became a conference for small colleges and eventually disbanded in 1942.

The Southern Conference grew to 23 schools by 1932.  Again, the league was too big.  Dr. Sanford convinced the 13 schools west and south of the Appalachian Mountains—Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU,  Mississippi, Mississippi State, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, Vanderbilt–to reorganize as the Southeastern Conference.  Play began in 1933.  By December 1953, eight other schools—Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Virginia, Wake Forest—had left the Southern Conference to form the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The Southern Conference survives to this day.

Sewanee resigned from the SEC in 1940, Georgia Tech in 1964, and Tulane in 1965.  Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC in 1990, and Missouri and Texas A & M joined in 2012.

From its SIAA infancy in 1894 to its full maturation in 2012, the SEC has been a force in college football.  The league boasts eight out of the last ten national champions, landed the largest television contracts (CBS and ESPN) in the history of college football in 2008, and launched its own network in 2014.  The South has indeed risen again.

 

Sources:  Newman, Zipp, The Impact of Southern Football, (MB Publishing: Montgomery, 1969).

“The Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association,” www.wikipedia.org.

“The Southern Conference,” www.wikipedia.org.

“The Southeastern Conference,” www.wikipedia.org.

God Bless Mother Gammon

Imagine having no college football games to attend in the fall. In the South, that would mean the Apocalypse had occurred. Southern college football almost came to end after the Georgia-Virginia game in Atlanta on October 3, 1897. If not for the love of a mother for her son, Southern people would have other activities planned for fall Saturdays.

Von Gammon played fullback and linebacker for Georgia and Coach Charles McCarthy during the 1897 season. The very athletic Gammon had also starred at quarterback the previous two seasons under legendary coach Pop Warner. During the middle of the second half of the Virginia game, the Cavaliers called a play that sent a mass of blockers and a ball carrier to the right side of the line. Gammon dove under the blockers to tackle the ball carrier. He could not get up after the play. Coach McCarthy and Captain Billy Kent carried Gammon to the bench, where he lost consciousness. He died in a hospital later that night.

Shock and disgust resonated throughout the South upon news of Gammon’s death.  For most Southern schools football had existed for less than five years, but injuries had occurred so frequently that even before Gammon’s death many influential Southern college administrators and politicians believed the violent sport should be abolished. With Gammon’s death, the sport’s fate seemed assured.

In a lopsided decision (the House result was 91 to 3 and the Senate vote 31 to 4), the Georgia Legislature voted to abolish college football soon after Gammon’s death. If Governor W. Y. Atkinson had signed the bill, more Southern states would surely follow.

Rosalind Gammon, Von’s mother, loved football because Von had loved football. She wrote letters to the Georgia Legislature and to Atkinson pleading for the continuation of the game. Her letters did not persuade the Legislature to change its position but the letter to Atkinson struck a chord with the governor. This passage from Ms. Gammon’s letter to Atkinson persuaded the governor to veto the bill:

“You are confronted with the proposition whether the game is of such character as should
be prohibited by law in the interest of society. To this I answer, it unquestionably is not.
In the first place the conditions necessary to its highest development are total abstinence
from intoxicating and stimulating drink—alcoholic and otherwise—as well from
cigarettes and tobacco of any form; strict regard for proper and healthiest diet and for all
of the laws of health; persistent regularity in the hours of going to bed and absolute
purity of life.”

The governor’s veto saved football in Georgia and throughout the South. Indeed, mothers know best, and Southern football fans owe Mother Gammon many thanks for the existence of fall’s favorite pastime.